China's search giant Baidu
has made another acquisition to continue its push into artificial intelligence, and specifically to help it carve out a place for itself as a platform for developers who want to create chatbots and other services based on natural language technology.
Baidu has acquired Kitt.ai
, a profitable startup based out of Seattle that has developed a framework to build and power chatbots and voice-based applications across multiple platforms and devices (presumably named after this Kitt)
The deal has been confirmed to us directly by Baidu. It was also announced on stage
at Baidu's developer event in Beijing, confirmed in a blog post f
rom Kitt.ai, and also made public with a short note from Baidu on Weibo. Financial terms of the deal are not being disclosed, a Baidu spokesperson said.
Kitt.ai has been around since 2014, but it appears that it had only disclosed a seed round of funding of an unspecified size as a startup. Its backers were Amazon's Alexa Fund and the Seattle-based Founders Co-op.
Importantly, the company was growing and thriving. It has paying customer across four continents "and we are profitable," co-founder Xuchen Yao notes in the blog post. Kitt.ai's tech powers apps for smart phones, speakers, appliances, web chat, cars, homes, conference rooms, offices, hospitals, "and even telephone lines." Yao and his two other co-founders Kenji Sagae and Guoguo Chen come from academic backgrounds, variously at Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon.
The company had released three products, all of which will remain operational as before: Snowboy ("a customizable hotword detection engine"), NLU ("a multilingual natural language understanding engine"), and ChatFlow (a multi-turn conversation engine that we covered here), and appeared to be built as a cross-platform service, improving its ubiquity.
Kitt.ai's star has risen with the growing use of natural language applications, from personal assistants and other voice-base apps, through to chatbots that operate through text but also rely on computers and artificial intelligence to be able to 'interpret' what a person is asking in order to answer correctly.
In addition to being profitable and international, Yao notes Kitt.ai now has more than 12,000 developers using Snowboy. It doesn't disclose user numbers of its other apps but had built ChatFlow as a paid B2B service.
Baidu - like its U.S. counterpart Google - has been investing over many years in building AI expertise and technology, not only to power its own services and whatever moves it plans to make next in search on existing platforms like mobile and computers, but also completely new areas like automotive as a new endpoint for its search technology.
There have been some setbacks in this area, such as the departure earlier this year of Andrew Ng, who had founded Google's deep learning division Google Brain and was Baidu's chief data scientist. The company has, however, also been making some key hires, such as Qi Lu, another AI specialist, from Microsoft; and it been making other significant acquisitions to continue building its expertise, such as computer vision specialist XPerception.